There is an unfortunate compartmentalization trend in modern reconstructive Paganism. That’s the idea of exclusive ethnic faith. The basis of the idea is that each ethnic group in antiquity had a religious and spiritual faith, and that it was their exclusive property, unshared, and uninfluenced by external forces. In my opinion, this is partially based in modern ideas of nationalism, and influenced greatly by the racist spiritual ideologies of the early 20th century. However, it’s not an accurate representation of how things were in antiquity, at all. So lets take a look at four examples of Pagan faiths and deities that spread well out of their homelands, and found acceptance in cultures very different from their own.
Epona is a Celtic goddess, whose cult was spread from ancient Britain through Gaul and the Rhinelands, and into the heart of the Roman Empire. One dedication to her was inscribed by a self identified Syrian. As a goddess of equines, she thrived in the countryside, where horses, donkeys, and mules were a part of life. In the Roman Army and its Auxiliaries, she was the patron goddess of cavalry. She was known in Budapest. Her shrines were found in stables throughout the Roman Empire, and she was even painted on the walls of the Circus Maximus.
The king of the gods, Amun, was a big wheel to say the least in the world of Egyptian religion. He also traveled well to other regions. In Nubia, he became known as Amane or Amani, where he was the national deity. A temple was found in what is now modern Sudan, and his worship was known in Libya. In the Levant, he was an adversary of the Hebrew god Yahweh, and seen unfavourably by its people. In ancient Greece, he was worshiped by the Spartans an others, sometimes as Ammon, other times as Zeus-Ammon.
Mithra and the Mithraic Mysteries find their origins in ancient Persia, but the archaeology of his height of worship sees his cult in permeate the Roman Empire, from the Levant to Spain, in North Africa, Gaul, the Rhinelands, and as far north as Britain. Often portrayed as the only real competition to Christianity, this syncretic faith offered no prohibitions on other gods and goddesses, and simply folded them into its own mythology. Unfortunately, while popular with the army and in the country, it was no contender in the urban areas that soon fell to Christian influence. That doesn’t lessen its influences though, or that it spread as far as it did.
Before her name was hijacked by a group of murderous lunatics as an acronym for their group, Isis was a goddess associated with home, the family, loyalty, the throne of Egypt, and protection. In later times, she also became a patroness of seafarers. Her myths greatly influenced many other religions, and her cult grew steadily from the back benches of the Egyptian religious world to being, arguably, the largest and most widespread mystery cult in antiquity, covering an even larger area than Mithra and not exceeded until the forced conversion to Christianity in Europe.
For many people, religion is an intensely personal thing, more so in the Pagan community, often because its intimately tied to a person’s self identification and group membership. But in this modern age, we need to pay attention to the past. Not the past that we want, or that gets portrayed in popular media, but the actual past. In that actual past, faiths, ideas, and people were much more mobile than we imagine today. Claiming exclusionary rights to something like gods and goddesses is not only foolhardy, but against what our ancestors did and practiced. To me, its harmful to the community as a whole. Does that mean you have to accept anyone who rolls up into your group and worship circle? No! But it does put some perspective on the topic of “who can worship who” and whether or not it has a place in reconstructed faiths.